domingo, 21 de diciembre de 2014

¿Existe la novela argentina?

"¿Existe la novela argentina?"
by Ricardo Piglia
Argentina, 1986

Let's say, to put it modestly, that [Roberto] Arlt is Jesus Christ.  Argentina is Israel, of course, and Buenos Aires is Jerusalem.  Arlt is born and lives a rather short life, dying at forty-two if I'm not mistaken...  But it wasn't the end of everything, because like Jesus Christ, Arlt had his St. Paul.  Arlt's St. Paul, the founder of his church, is Ricardo Piglia.  I often ask myself: what would have happened if Piglia, instead of falling in love with Arlt, had fallen in love with Gombrowicz?  Why didn't Piglia devote himself to spreading the Gombrowiczian good news...?
(Roberto Bolaño, "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom," 97-98 [ellipses added])

Fun w/Argentinean Gombrowicz Criticism, Part I.  Long before Roberto Bolaño started riffing on the vagaries of the Argentinean Literature of Doom, fellow big deal novelist/longtime Caravana favorite/alleged St. Paul to Roberto Arlt's Jesus Christ Ricardo Piglia (photo above) took up the question "¿Existe la novela argentina?" ["Is There Such a Thing as the Argentinean Novel?"] to propose a pre-Doom Argentinean long form canon of sorts centered on the works of Roberto Arlt, Macedonio Fernández, and--apparently unbeknownst to our good friend Bolaño--a wacky Polish party crasher by the name of Witold Gombrowicz.  In any event, the seven pillars of wisdom buttressing Piglia's action-packed 1986 essay go something like this.  1) Gombrowicz's 1953 novel Trans-Atlantyk, written in Polish a little more than halfway through the writer's World War II-prompted 24-year stay in Argentina and only later translated into the Spanish of his country of refuge as Transatlántico, is "una de las mejores novelas escritas en este país" ["one of the best novels written in this country"] (35).  Beyond its artistic qualities, though, Trans-Atlantyk poses fundamental questions about identity--in particular, "¿Qué pasa cuando uno pertenece a una cultura secundaria? ¿Qué pasa cuando uno escribe en una lengua marginal?" ["What happens when one belongs to a culture of lesser importance?  What happens when one writes in a non-mainstream language?"]--to which Gombrowicz would return again in his nonfiction Diary.  For Piglia, Argentinean culture thus inadvertently provided the rascally Polish writer who sometimes pretended to be a count with a living laboratory in which to put his art-and-exile hypotheses to the test while living in a South American nation "of lesser importance" in terms of the country's cultural presence on the world stage (36).  2) In terms of Gombrowicz's points of contact with the Argentinean literary tradition, on the other hand, Piglia reminds us that one of the main thrusts of Jorge Luis Borges' 1932 essay "El escritor argentino y la tradición" ["The Argentine Writer and Tradition"] bears a striking similarity to some of the Polish author's concerns as far as Borges' highlighting of the manner in which so-called "literaturas secundarias y marginales" ["minor and non-mainstream literatures"], due to the very fact that they are "desplazadas de las grandes corrientes europeas...de las grandes tradiciones" ["displaced from the great European currents...from the grand traditions"], actually afford what Borges deems the advantage of an "irreverente" ["irreverent"], liberating free hand in the sense that the so-called inferior tradition isn't tethered to the dominant tradition (Ibid., ellipses added).  Of course, whether that isn't really always true for iconoclasts by definition is another question for el señor Borges.  Still,  "para Borges (como para Gombrowicz)" ["for Borges (as for Gombrowicz)"], the essayist adds, "este lugar incierto permite un uso específico de la herencia cultural: los mecanismos de falsificación, la tentación del robo, la traducción como plagio, la mezcla, la combinación de registros, el entrevero de filiaciones.  Ésa sería la tradición argentina" ["this no man's land invites a specific use of one's cultural patrimony: in the process of falsification; the invitation to robbery; translation as plagiarism; the blending, the combination of registers; the mash-up of lines of descent.  That would be the Argentinean tradition"] (Ibid.).  3)  Had I not read the hysterical Borges- and Adolfo Bioy Casares-penned Crónicas de Bustos Domecq [Chronicles of Bustos Domecq] over the summer, I might have found that last bit a little over the top on Piglia's part.  However, that slender volume of spurious criticism alone corroborates everything the man's just said!  Piglia takes an unexpected critical detour at this point, though, to ask what would have happened if Gombrowicz had written Trans-Atlantyk in Spanish instead of in his native Polish.  That is, would the great "Gombro" have been able to pull off a master stylist act in a foreign language like Joseph Conrad did or would the results have been something more like the infamously rough-hewn Spanish of Roberto Arlt, who was born in Buenos Aires but grew up in a German-speaking home courtesy of first generation immigrant parents from Germany and Italy?  Piglia understandably supposes the latter, but the explanation he gives hints at the increasingly language-obsessed direction of the remainder of his piece: "Alguien que quiso denigrarlo dijo que Arlt hablaba el lunfardo con acento extranjero.  Ésa es una excelente definición del efecto que produce su estilo.  Y sirve también para imaginar lo que pudo haber sido el español de Gombrowicz: esa mezcla rara de formas populares y acento eslavo" ["Somebody who wanted to denigrate him said that Arlt spoke lunfardo with a foreign accent. That is an excellent description of the effect that his style produces.  And it also helps us imagine what Gombrowicz's Spanish could have been like: that strange mix of colloquialisms and a Slavic accent"] (37).  4) While "Arlt's St. Paul" acknowledges the truth behind the saying that "vivir en otra lengua" ["living in another language"] as practiced by the likes of Conrad, Jerzy Kosinski, Nabokov, Beckett and Isak Dinesen among others ''es la experiencia de la novela moderna" ["is the experience of the modern novel"], he emphasizes the point that Polish was a language that Gombrowicz "usaba casi exclusivamente en la escritura, como si fuera un idiolecto, una lengua privada" ["used almost exclusively in writing, as if it were an idiolect, a private language"] in his day to day life in Argentina (Ibid.)  Because of that, Gombrowicz's Trans-Atlantyk, the first novel which he wrote in exile, "establece un pacto extremo con la lengua polaca" ["establishes an extreme covenant with the Polish language"].  How so?  "La novela es casi intraducible, como sucede siempre que un artista está lejos de su lengua y mantiene con ella una relación excesiva donde se mezclan el odio y la nostalgia" ["The novel is almost untranslatable, as always happens when an artist is far removed from his native tongue and maintains an excessive relationship with it in which hate and nostalgia freely mingle"].  That debatable point notwithstanding, Piglia's conclusion to this section was very arresting to this Argentinean Literature of Doomophile:  "Digo esto" ["I say this"], he explains, "porque me parece que la extrañeza es la marca de los dos grandes estilos que se han producido en la novela argentina del siglo xx: el de Roberto Arlt y el de Macedonio Fernández.  Parecen lenguas exiliadas: suenan como el español de Gombrowicz" ["because it seems to me that strangeness is the hallmark of the two great styles that have been produced in the 20th century Argentinean novel: Roberto Arlt's and Macedonio Fernández's"] (Ibid.).  5)  Naturally, all this talk of language and "strangeness" leads Piglia like a ping pong ball back to Borges and his "preciso y claro, casi perfecto" ["precise and clear, almost perfect"] Spanish (Ibid.).  In a digression that should be of great interest to translation geeks in general and to Borges geeks in particular, Piglia notes that Borges himself admits to having been greatly indebted to Paul Groussac--another European turned Rio de la Plata expat who, unlike Gombrowicz, abandoned his native tongue and went on to help define the norms of early Argentinean literary style along with people like Leopoldo Lugones.  Piglia: "En este sentido hay que decir que nuestro Conrad es Groussac" ["In this sense, we have to say that our Conrad is Groussac"].  And: "Allí busca Borges los origines 'argentinos' de su estilo" ["That's where Borges searches for the 'Argentinean' origins of his style"] (38).  To add to the irony of a French-born transplant like Groussac being a forerunner of Borges' in matters of Spanish language style, Piglia suggests that Borges himself might have constructed his style out of a misplaced relationship with his mother tongue.  Citing an anecdote which is very amusing but maybe not entirely reliable from a factual standpoint, Piglia shares the story about how the first book Borges supposedly read in his life was a translation of Don Quixote in English.  Borges: "Cuando lo leí en el original pensé que era una mala traducción" ["When I read it in the original Spanish, I thought that it was a bad translation"]!  Remarking that this anecdote reveals the mind of the prankster behind the great short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," Piglia opines that when Borges eventually resolved the dilemma of how to write with the precision of English but the rhythms and tones of the Spanish of his everyday life, he was well on his way to developing one of the best prose styles in the language since Francisco de Quevedo (38).  6)  The 1947 "traducción argentina" ["Argentinean translation"] of Gombrowicz's 1937 novel Ferdydurke is the next item on the agenda, and like the preceding one it's a fairly awesome one indeed for a language freak.  Piglia begins by saying that the translation was one of the most "extravagantes" ["extravagant"] and "significativas" ["significant"] literary experiences he's aware of (39).  Although this sounds like a generous dollop of typical academic rhetorical overkill, anybody who's familiar with Gombrowicz's endearing penchant for referring to himself as "yo, Gombrowicz" ["I, Gombrowicz"] as if he were a character of his own creation won't doubt the "extravagant" part at all!  More to the point, in this case the translation endeavor just might have lived up to Piglia's hype inasmuch as the process entailed Gombrowicz creating a first draft of the novel by translating the original Polish into an "inesperado" ["unexpected"] and "casi onírico" ["almost dreamlike"] Spanish, and then arranging to have a team of native Spanish speakers working under the direction of the Cuban Virgilio Piñera hammer out the final version with the assistance of a veritable soccer team of others.  Who were these unnamed assistants?  "Los parroquianos y los jugadores de ajedrez y de codillo que frecuentaban la confitería Rex y que aportaban sus opiniones lingüísticas cuando las discusiones subían demasiado de tono" ["The regulars and the chess players and the codillo-playing card sharps who frequented the confitería Rex café/pastry shop and who chimed in with their own linguistic opinions whenever the discussions would get too heated"].  Piglia explains that "este equipo no conocía el polaco y los debates se trasladan a menudo al francés, lengua a la Gombrowicz y Piñera se cruzaban cuando el español ya no admitía nuevas torsiones" ["this team didn't know Polish and the debates were often carried over into French, a language where Gombrowicz and Piñera would find common ground when Spanish no longer accommodated new contortions"].  The result?  Gombrowicz essentially rewrote Ferdydurke in its entirety for the Argentinean translation, employing a blend of "Cuban," French, Polish, and "Argentinean" to form a new "materia viva" ["living/organic matter"] (Ibid.).  Piglia calls this mutation "uno de los textos más singulares de nuestra literatura" ["one of the most singular texts in our literature"], the "our" part stemming from the fact that "antes que nada hay que decir que es una mala traducción en el sentido en que Borges hablaba así de la lengua de Cervantes" ["first of all, it has to be said that it's a bad translation in the same sense in which Borges was talking about Cervantes' language"] and--more to the point, that little piece of mischievousness aside--secondly, that "en la versión argentina de Ferdydurke el español está forzado casi hasta la ruptura, crispado y artificial, parece una lengua futura.  Suena en realidad como una combinacion (una cruza) de los estilos de Roberto Arlt y de Macedonio Fernández" ["in the Argentinean version of Ferdydurke, the Spanish is strained almost to the breaking point; contorted and artificial, it seems like a future language.  It sounds, in reality, like a combination (a hybrid) of the styles of Roberto Arlt and of Macedonio Fernández"] (40).  7)  In the final page or two of the essay, "the founder of [Arlt's] church" prepares to seal the deal literary history-wise with the twin declarations that he believes the Argentinean translation of Ferdydurke to have merged with "las líneas centrales de la novela argentina contemporánea" ["the main currents of the contemporary Argentinean novel"] over time and that Gombrowicz himself probably deserves credit for having been "uno de los primeros" ["one of the first people"] in the country to pave the way for a reading of Arlt and Macedonio that legitimized them rather than disavowed them for their nonconformity.  Gombrowicz himself might have disdained such credit; after all, the well known provocateur famously lashed out at snobbish Argentinean literati with the accusation that "éste es un país donde el canillita que vocea la revista literaria de la élite refinada tiene más estilo que todos los redactores de esa misma revista" ["this is a country where the newspaper and magazine peddlers who shout out the names of the literary magazines of the elite have more style than all the contributors to that same rag"]!  That being said, Piglia notes that Macedonio was the first person to publish Gombrowicz in Spanish in his magazine Los papeles de Buenos Aires.  Did the two ever actually meet?  Probably not according to Piglia because "en aquellos años los dos vivían aislados, en pobrísimas piezas de pensión, seguros de su valor pero indecisos sobre el futuro de sus obras" ["in those years, the two lived isolated lives, in the poorest of boarding house rooms, confident about their worth as writers and yet undecided about the posterity of their works"] (40-41).  Which is a shame not least because "en más de uno sentido eran, el uno para el otro, el único lector posible" ["in more than one sense, each was the only possible reader for the other"].  In any case, "Arlt, Macedonio, Gombrowicz," writes the man Bolaño somewhat jokingly took to task for failing to spread "the Gombrowiczian good news."  "La novela argentina se construye en esos cruces (pero también con otras intrigas).  La novela argentina sería una novela polaca: quiero decir una novela polaca traducida a un español futuro, en un café de Buenos Aires, por una banda de conspiradores liderados por un conde apócrifo. Toda verdadera tradición es clandestina y se construye retrospectivamente y tiene la forma de un complot" ["The Argentinean novel is constructed out of those intersections (but also with other intrigues).  The Argentinean novel would be a Polish novel: by which I mean a Polish novel translated into a future Spanish, in a Buenos Aires café, by a band of conspirators led by a fake count.  All true tradition is clandestine and is constructed retrospectively and has all the attributes of a conspiracy"] (41).

Sources
  • Roberto Bolaño's 2002 speech on "Derivas de la pesada," translated by Natasha Wimmer as "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom," appears in The Hudson Review LXIV, no. 1 (2011): 95-101, and can also be found in Bolaño's Between Parentheses.  The Arlt/Piglia stuff in particular is classic Bolaño.
  • Ricardo Piglia's "¿Existe la novela argentina?"--based on his 1982 participation in a conference on the Argentinean novel held at the Universidad Nacional del Litoral in Santa Fe, Argentina--appears on pp. 35-41 of his volume Crítica y ficción (Buenos Aires: Seix Barral, 2000).  A more recent edition of the book retitles the essay as "La novela polaca" ["The Polish Novel"] for reasons unknown.  Whatever, an inspiring storyteller/critic.

lunes, 15 de diciembre de 2014

Diario argentino

Diario argentino (Adriana Hidalgo editora, 2006)
por Witold Gombrowicz [traducción del polaco por Sergio Pitol]
Argentina, 1968

"¡Al diablo con el paisaje!  ¡El paisaje es tremendamente estúpido!  Preferiría mucho más un robo, aunque fuese sólo pequeño".
(Diario argentino, 251)

Como es sabido, el conocido escritor/enfant terrible polaco Witold Gombrowicz llegó a Buenos Aires en el año 1939 justo una semana antes de que estallara la Segunda Guerra Mundial.  El futuro "Gombro" o che "Witoldo" decidió quedarse en Argentina para los próximos 24 años, un autoexilio fecundo durante el cual se proclamó un conde de chanza (45), conoció a Borges ("quizás el escritor argentino de más talento"), a Bioy Casares y a las hermanas Ocampo (46), y escribió la gran novela Transatlántico (según el juicio de Ricardo Piglia, "una de las mejores novelas escritas en este país") y este diario íntimo mordaz lleno de declaraciones inesperadas sobre la escritura, la Argentina, y su tema preferido: ¡Gombrowicz él mismo!  De más está decir que nuestro héroe, un individualista por excelencia, me hizo reír abiertamente con la verdad pura y dura de sus opiniones y provocaciones.  Al principio del libro, por ejemplo, el autor reflexiona sobre el valor de escribir un diario para un literato: "Escribo este diario sin ganas", empieza.  "Su insincera sinceridad me fatiga.  ¿Para quién escribo?  ¿Si tan sólo para mí, por qué se imprime?  ¿Y si lo es para el lector, por qué finjo entonces conversar conmigo mismo?  ¿Hablar con uno mismo para que lo oigan los demás?"  Antes de mucho tiempo, Gombrowicz señala el reto específico para él en cuanto a su oficio de littérateur: "Sin embargo advierto que uno debe ser el mismo en todos los niveles de la escritura; es decir, que debería poder expresarme no sólo en un poema o en un drama, sino también en la prosa vulgar, en un artículo o en el diario...y el vuelo del arte tiene que encontrar su correspondencia en la región de la vida cotidiana, igual que la sombra del cóndor se refleja sobre la tierra".  ¿Un poco pretencioso?  Tal vez, pero esto no es nada en comparación con lo que sigue porque, como de costumbre, el "vanidoso" Gombrowicz soluciona al problema con un palmetazo estético: "Hay que abrirse.  Poner las cartas sobre la mesa.  Escribir no significa sino la lucha del artista contra los demás para resaltar su propia superioridad" (17-18).  En otra parte, el casi siempre impertinente Gombrowicz se burla de la falta de originalidad evidente en las sensibilidades europeizantes de los novelistas argentinos ("El problema principal para estos artistas no es expresar su pasión y construir un mundo, sino escribir una novela de 'nivel europeo' para que Argentina, para que América del Sur, logre al fin su papel representativo.  Tratan al arte como si fuera una competencia deportiva internacional y pasan horas cavilando en las causas por las que tan raras veces el equipo argentino logra meter un 'goal'" [123]) y, en uno de mis momentos favoritos, escandaliza al líder del élite intelectual de la ciudad de provincia de Tandil (un hombre caracterizado como un "comunista-idealista, soñador, buena gente, lleno de buena voluntad, benévolo, humano") con un ataque imprevisto dirigido a su llamado "trabajo en la localidad": "¡Dejen vivir en paz a la gente!" grita Gombrowicz a los "idealistas" marxistas.  "¿De dónde sacan que todos deben ser inteligentes e ilustrados?"  Y el golpe de gracia: "¡Dejen en paz a los brutos!"  "Dejé caer las palabras 'brutos' y, peor aún, 'vulgo', por las que de golpe me volví aristocrático", explica Gombrowicz.  "Era como si hubiera declarado la guerra...  Esa agresividad me fortaleció" (157-159).  Antes de concluir, debo confesar que el día que compré mi ejemplar de Diario argentino hace cuatro años en una librería en la avenida Corrientes de Baires (¡todavía tengo la factura!), no tuve ninguna idea de que el director's cut del diario de Gombrowicz incluye unas quinientas páginas más de las que se pueden encontrar en esta versión.  ¿Desilusionante?  ¡De ninguna manera!  Después de todo, quinientas páginas más sobre las aventuras argentinas del "conde" Gombrowicz significa quinientas páginas más dedicadas a su ars poética ("El arte y la rebelión son casi lo mismo.  Soy revolucionario por ser artista y en la medida que lo soy... Ese proceso milenario del que provengo está sembrado de nombres como los de Rabelais, Montaigne, Lautréamont, Cervantes, que son una permanente incitación a la rebeldía, algunas veces en suaves murmullos, otras en explosiones a voz en cuello" [94]) y quinientas páginas más dedicadas a citas geniales como ésta precipitada por su regreso a Europa: "No podré existir a menos que me sientan como enemigo" (261). Enfant terrible un jour, enfant terrible toujours.

El joven Gombrowicz (1904-1969) en 1939

lunes, 8 de diciembre de 2014

Journey by Moonlight

Journey by Moonlight [Utas és holdvilág] (NYRB Classics, 2014)
por Antal Szerb [traducción del húngaro por Len Rix]
Hungría, 1937

Journey by Moonlight [publicada en español como El viajero bajo el resplandor de la luna; título original: Utas és holdvilág], en aparencia dedicada a un matrimonio fracasado pero en realidad una meditación de carácter escurridizo sobre la pasión y el conformismo, es una novela rara y algo onírica, divertida y agridulce a la vez, que para mí era una gran introducción al mundo narrativo de Antal Szerb.  En líneas generales, el argumento tiene que ver con lo que sucede a una pareja de recién casados cuando Mihály, un tipo excéntrico y trastornado, decide de abandonar a su flamante esposa Erszi durante su luna de miel en Italia.  Aunque el comportamiento inexplicable de Mihály es un centro de atención en la obra como es natural, la imprevisibilidad de las vueltas cuentísticas de Szerb y el vaivén de tonalidad entre el realismo y la irrealidad en el relato son tales que El viajero bajo el resplandor de la luna se puede leer como un cuento de hadas cargado de nostalgia o una parodia de la novela de aventuras o algo por el estilo.  ¡Embriaguez narrativa!  A lo largo de la novela, por ejemplo, Szerb sorprende con la viveza de sus descripciones ("The landscape, so magical when viewed from the train between Bologna and Florence, was now damp and hostile, like the face of a weeping woman with the make-up peeling off" ["El paisaje, tan mágico cuando visto desde el tren entre Bolonia y Florencia, ahora era húmedo y nada amistoso, como la cara de una llorona con el maquillaje pelado"]) (64), los personajes se destacan por o la aspereza o la locura de sus comentarios ("For some reason I asked the old man who Mozart was.  'Der war ein Scheunepurzler,' he said, which means, more or less, someone who does somersaults in a barn to amuse the yokels" ["Por alguna razón, le preguntó al viejo quién fue Mozart.  'Der war ein Scheunepurzler', él dijo, que significa, más o menos, alguien que da saltos mortales en un granero para entretener a los palurdos"]) (188), y el viaje sentimental por Italia de Mihály está narrado con un sentido de humor mordaz  --como en la escena donde el protagonista, un burgués agotado por los recuerdos de un amigo muerto y una mujer inasequible, presencia el bautismo de un bambino italiano en la compañía de algunos "Italian proles" ["proletarios italianos"] y percibe algo apocalíptico en la figura "odiosa" de madre y niño que se parece a "some kind of satanic parody of the Madonna, some malicious uglification of European man's greatest symbol" ["algún tipo de parodia satánica de la Virgen, un afeamiento malévolo del mayor símbolo de la humanidad europea"] (282).  Al mismo tiempo, no es difícil divisar el afecto que el novelista tiene por algunos de sus personajes principales con todas sus flaquezas o el hecho de que, en una novela que juega con las relaciones entre el tiempo y el pasado personal de Mihály y la antigüedad, una inscripción etrusca, citada dos veces en las páginas 193 y 277, hace un carpe diem o un memento mori digno para todas las edades: Foied vinom papafo, cra carefo ["Hoy beberé vino, mañana no tendré nada"].  Un encanto.

Antal Szerb (1901-1945)

miércoles, 3 de diciembre de 2014

Las formas de la traición en la literatura argentina

"Las formas de la traición en la literatura argentina"
by Liliana Heker
Argentina, 2009

Liliana Heker, last heard from in these parts in relation to her warm, inviting fútbol short story "La música de los domingos" which I posted on back during Spanish Lit Month, makes her long-overdue second appearance on the blog thanks to the critical acumen on display in the 2006-2007 presentation she gave at the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires on the doom-worthy matter of "Las formas de la traición en la literatura argentina" ["Forms of Treachery and Betrayal in Argentinean Literature"].*  What a great lecture topic!  Beginning with "la modalidad más popular de nuestra literatura: las letras de tango" ["the most popular form of our literature: tango lyrics"] (391), Heker spends a good chunk of time examining the dizzying variety of ways in which "la traición es asunto dominante" ["treachery and betrayal constitute the dominant subject matter"] of tango music in its classic period between 1917 and the 1940s (Ibid.).  Apart from what for me was a fairly useful reminder that there's no real reason not to consider tango lyrics as literature, Heker's examples are striking for what they reveal about the nature of the violence and the sociopathic behavior inspired by her theme in song--as evident in "A la luz del candil" ["By the Light of the Lamp"], where the "doble traición" ["double betrayal"] of the "narrator" by his girlfriend and his best friend leads the singer to more or less casually remark, "Señor, me traicionaban, y los maté a los dos.  Las pruebas de la infamia las traigo en la maleta: las trenzas de mi china y el corazón de él" ["Sir, they were betraying me, and I killed them both.  I carry the proof of the infamy in my suitcase: my girl's ponytail and his heart"], and in "Esta noche me emborracho" ["Tonight I Get Drunk"], where the singer cynically confesses that he betrayed his lover just for the "beauty" of the gratuitous act of betraying her ("Llegué a la traición por su hermosura") (391-392).  Moving on to illustrations from the written word, Heker has some really good bits on the ambiguous nature of betrayal in the gaucho poem Martín Fierro, where the lawman Cruz betrays both his friends and the civil authorities to fight alongside the criminal and deserter Martín Fierro out of admiration for the latter's bravery, an antisocial act which muddies the waters of the morality lesson to be drawn from the story, and on various instances of riffs on betrayal and treachery to be found in Borges' short stories.  One of the stories mentioned, "El indigno" ["Unworthy"], will be of particular interest to those of you attuned to the aesthetic/geological Arlt/Borges rift running throughout most of the length of 20th century Argentinean lit like a San Andreas Fault of the nation's fiction.  As Heker tells it, the Borges story concerns a Jewish bookseller named Santiago Fischbein who, believing himself "indigno de la amistad" ["unworthy of the friendship"] of a man named Ferrari, rats out Ferrari for a crime he hadn't committed.  The twist at the end of the story in the character Fischbein's words?  "Días después, me dijeron que Ferrari trató de huir, pero que un balazo bastó.  Los diarios, por supuesto, lo convertieron en el héroe que acaso nunca fue y que yo había soñado" ["Days later, I was told that Ferrari tried to get away, but that one shot was all it took.  The newspapers, of course, made him the hero that perhaps he never was, but that I had dreamed of"] (395, with an English translation by Andrew Hurley lifted from Borges' Collected Fictions [New York: Penguin Classics, 1998, 357]).  With this as a backdrop, things get good and juicy literary criticism wise when Heker next notes that it's "imposible no vincular este relato de Borges con el final de El juguete rabioso, donde también se consuma una traición, tal vez la traición canónica de la literatura argentina" ["impossible not to link this tale of Borges' with the ending of Mad Toy, where a betrayal is also carried out, perhaps the canonical betrayal in Argentinean literature"].  As she explains it, "cabe pensar que Borges premeditó el paralelismo entre su cuento y esa última parte de la novela de Arlt, titulada, justamente, Judas Iscariote.  Los dos personajes, Santiago Fischbein y Silvio Astier, son adolescentes, los dos son invitados, como una prueba de confianza, a participar en un robo; los dos delatan a quien ha confiado en ellos" ["there is every reason to believe that Borges thought out in advance the parallelism between his story and that last part of Arlt's novel, which is titled, precisely, 'Judas Iscariot.'  The two characters, Santiago Fischbein and Silvio Astier, are adolescents; they are both invited, as a test of confidence, to participate in a robbery; they both squeal on the person who has placed trust in them"].  Beyond that, Heker points out that there's even a minor character named Alt (i.e. sans the "r" in Arlt) in the story--although she cautions that it's the differences rather than the parallels which are "lo interesante" ["the interesting things"] to focus on in these two superficially similar works by Borges and Arlt featuring reprehensible betrayals (395-396).  Having already dished out the red meat of tango records, Martín Fierro, Arlt and Borges, and many other writers I haven't had time to mention here in her treachery-and-betrayal themed survey of Argentinean literature, Heker offers up a dessert course of sorts with a nod to the traitor-like qualities of the narrator in works like Cortázar's long short story/novella "El perseguidor" ["The Pursuer"]--"un recurso, un modo de la astucia literaria" ["a means, a method of literary craftiness"] in which the narrator "finge ser un aliado del personaje narrado pero en realidad  --y el lector sutilmente lo percibe-- se coloca fuera de ese personaje, de su sufrimiento, de su propio sentido de la existencia, de su locura" ["pretends to be an ally of the character being narrated but in reality--and the reader subtly perceives this--situates himself apart from that character, from his suffering, from his own sense of existence, from his madness"] (397)--and to "un modo de la traición intrínseco al oficio de componer ficciones: la traición del escritor" ["a mode of betrayal inherent in the craft of composing fiction: the writer's betrayal"] evident in the writer's reformulation of "su propia experiencia y la experiencia de los otros" ["his own experience and the experiences of others"] in the service of a work of art that just might, "sin garantías" ["without any guarantees"], offer up the possibility "de construir algo que tal vez trascienda esos fragmentos de vida y arme algo con luz propia" ["of erecting something that might transcend those fragments of life and cobble together something with its own light"] (398).  Speaking of which, that's enough typing for now.

*For the record, I kind of cheated on that title translation somewhat.  "Traición" can signify both "treachery" in a general sense and "betrayal" in the more personal sense, but I decided to double up on the meanings since I wasn't sure which of the two words Heker would have wanted to accord pride of place in her discussion.

Source
Liliana Heker's lecture on "Las formas de la traición en la literatura argentina" appears as the final chapter in the anthology La literatura argentina por escritores argentinos: narradores, poetas y dramaturgos coordinated by Sylvia Iparraguirre (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Biblioteca Nacional, 2009, 389-402).  The chapter concludes with an interview of the writer conducted by Ángel Berlanga.

lunes, 1 de diciembre de 2014

The 2014 Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom: November Links

With less than a month left in this year's Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doomfest, I guess I better get cracking reading/procrastinating/procrastinating some more in order to crank out all those unwanted end of the year Aira/Arlt/Lamborghini et al. posts I use to drive blog traffic away like fine Swiss clockwork each December out here in Caravanalandia (actually, the Aira ones are occasionally "popular" truth be told).  You, on the other hand, still have one month left to leisurely ponder and post on as little as a single piece of Argentinean or Uruguayan literature for less antagonistic reasons of your own choosing if you like.  While I await your decision, here are November's 2014 A(&U)LoD links.  Cheers!

 JacquiWine, JacquiWine's Journal

Richard, Caravana de recuerdos
 Glaxo by Hernán Ronsino
"Lo que dice César Aira" by Sergio Pitol*
Don Segundo Sombra by Ricardo Güiraldes

Séamus, Vapour Trails
Memory of Fire: Genesis by Eduardo Galeano

*Yes, I'm aware that Pitol is a Mexican, but he's been granted honorary Argentinean Literature of Doom citizenship for the purposes of this post.

domingo, 30 de noviembre de 2014

Don Segundo Sombra

Don Segundo Sombra (Cátedra, 2007)
por Ricardo Güiraldes
Argentina, 1926

Don Segundo Sombra, la arquetípica novela de gauchos de Güiraldes, es una especie de bildungsroman pampeana (calificación: muy buena) que tiene que ver con la formación del joven Fabio Cáceres como él evoluciona de guacho a gaucho en busca de la independencia de vida ofrecida por lo que él llama "el más macho de los oficios" (118).  ¿Lo que me entusiasmó en esta novela de aprendizaje?  En primer lugar, me gustó su retrato de la amistad entre el protagonista, un adolescente que ha escapado de la influencia de unas "mandonas bigotudas" familiares (106), y su protector y padre adoptivo, el gaucho don Segundo Sombra.  En segundo lugar, me gustaron su sencillez de estilo y su sentido de humor.  En uno de sus varios esbozos en miniatura, por ejemplo, don Segundo Sombra disfruta de una riquísima cena de cordero asado en la sombra de un ombú y se queja, "lástima no tener dos panzas" (185).  ¡De acuerdo, paisano!  En tercer lugar, uno de los mayores logros de la novela no es su lenguaje ni su ambiente "gauchescos" (aunque ambos son admirables) sino la manera en cual su argumento básico y episódico está condimentado con descripciones absolutamente llamativas: "Yo vi la hoja cortar la noche como un fogonazo" (85), que trata de una pelea de cuchillos, es un claro ejemplo de esto; "Me fui, como quien se desangra" (315), que versa con una despedida dolorosa, es otro.  Don Segundo Sombra, de Güiraldes, dicho sea de paso, salió a la venta en el mismo año que El juguete rabioso, de Arlt.  1926: qué buen año para la novela argentina, ¿no?

Ricardo Güiraldes (1886-1927)

martes, 11 de noviembre de 2014

Lo que dice César Aira

"Lo que dice César Aira"
by Sergio Pitol
Mexico, 2006

Sergio Pitol's eight page long tequila shot "Lo que dice César Aira" ["What César Aira Says," as far as I know not yet available for consumption in translation] is the sort of warm, memoiristic slap to the head that might induce more of a fannish literary history buzz in people who are already familiar with Aira's 1997 El congreso de literatura [The Literary Conference]--a true story about a mad scientist named César Aira who decides to clone Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes at a literary conference in Venezuela--but even for people who haven't drunk the Aira Kool-Aid as yet, it's still exactly the sort of mind-altering amber goodness you might expect when one of your favorite writers decides to hoist a shot glass or two in honor of another one of your favorites.  In any event, I'll step out of the way and let Pitol (photo above) get the anecdotal ball rolling:

Debió ser a finales de 1993 o principios de 1994 cuando conocí a César Aira.  Fue en uno de esos congresos anuales de literatura en Mérida, Venezuela, a donde invitaban una o dos docenas de escritores hispanoamericanos, y que tenía como sede un hotel campestre, rodeado de chalets.  Después de los escritores venezolanos, que eran legión, la delegación mexicana era la más amplia: seis o siete narradores.  A mí me tocó compartir una cabaña de tres dormitorios, un amplio salón y un baño, con el español Enrique Vila-Matas, amigo desde hacía muchos años y con un joven argentino para mí enteramente desconocido.  Era César Aira, quien se presentó con nosotros muy educadamente, pero con un leve aire de lejanía.  Durante los cinco o seis días que duró la reunión, cambiamos escasísimas palabras.  Los saludos en la mañana, las buenas noches después de la cena y durante el transcurso del día alguna que otra frase banal sobre el clima.  En la noche había fiestas y convivios bastante divertidos a donde él no concurría.  Siempre lo veía inclinando escribiendo en unas pequeñas libretas.  Sus compañeros argentinos Héctor Libertella y Sergio Chejfec hablaban de él con reverencia.  Comentaban que quizás era la figura más inusitada de la nueva literatura.  Era una escritura provocativa, irritante, radicalmente desconcertante, semejante a la de Gombrowicz, nos decían a los mexicanos, quienes, como yo, también lo desconocían.  El único de nosotros que podía participar en esas conversaciones era Hernán Lara Zavala, pues había publicado en la colección que dirigía en la UNAM una novela suya, El llanto.  El tema del congreso ese año se ceñia a una ars poética; cada uno debía explicar la suya.  Aira definió su juego de procedimientos narrativos como un mecanismo que se movía en dirección contraria a las convenciones narrativas.  A él no le interesaba hacer lo que todos hacían, ni seguir las líneas de Balzac o Stendhal, a quienes conocía perfectamente y respetaba, porque esas formas ya estaban cristalizadas; la novela contemporánea que tocase los mismos temas y siguiera haciendo algunas variaciones sobre formas narrativas ya canonizadas, le hastiaba.  A él le interesaba remontarse a los orígenes, empaparse en ellos, para luego proseguir una fuga hacia el futuro, hacia lo no manoseado, hacia una escritura estimulante (173-174).

[It must have been at the end of 1993 or the beginning of 1994 when I met César Aira.  It was at one of those yearly literary conferences in Mérida, Venezuela, where they'd invited one or two dozen Spanish-American writers, and which had a rural hotel, surrounded by chalets, as its base.  After the Venezuelan writers, who were legion, the Mexican delegation was the largest in size: six or seven narrators.  It was my lot to share a three bedroom cabin, a bathroom and a spacious common room with the Spaniard Enrique Vila-Matas, a longtime friend, and with a young Argentine who was entirely unknown to me.  It was César Aira, who introduced himself to us very politely, but with a slightly distant air.  During the five or six days that the gathering lasted, we exchanged very few words.  Greetings in the morning, goodnights after dinner, and during the course of the day one or another banal comment on the weather.  In the evenings, there were quite entertaining parties and banquets which he didn't attend.  His fellow Argentines Héctor Libertella and Sergio Chejfec spoke of him with reverence.  They commented that he was perhaps the most unusual figure in the new literature.  His writing was provocative, irritating, radically disconcerting, similar to that of Gombrowicz, they told us Mexicans, the rest of whom, like me, also didn't know about Aira.  The only one of us who could participate in those conversations was Hernán Lara Zavala since he had published a novel of Aira's, El llanto, in the imprint he oversaw for UNAM.  The theme of the conference that year was on the topic of an Ars Poetica; each writer had to explain his own.  Aira defined his strategy for narrative proceedings as a mechanism which moved in the opposite direction of narrative conventions.  He wasn't interested in doing what everybody else was doing, nor in continuing in the line of Balzac or Stendhal, whose work he knew well and respected, because those forms were already crystallized; the contemporary novel which touched on the same themes and continued making slight variations on narrative forms which were already canonized bored him.  What interested him was going back to the origins, steeping himself in them, to then press on with a flight toward the future, toward forms that hadn't been fiddled with, towards a writing that was stimulating.]

As if so engrossed in the Ars Poetica business that he momentarily forgot that he was writing about his introduction to Aira, Pitol spends most of his follow-up paragraph citing the literary mad scientist on his preference for "la mala literatura" ["bad literature"] over "la literatura convencional" ["conventional literature"] even when the latter is actually good literature ("aunque sea buena," 174).  The words that follow are Aira's as lifted from an essay by Marcelo Damiani.  Just what does César Aira say?

Lo que tiene de bueno la literatura mala es que opera con una maravillosa libertad, la libertad del disparate, de la locura, y a veces la literatura buena es mala porque para ser buena tiene que cuidarse tanto, se restringe tanto, que termina siendo mala.  Termina siendo aburrida, o directamente no vale la pena leerla.  Algunos libros de Marguerite Yourcenar, Octavio Paz o Milan Kundera, que se suponen buena literatura, podría traducirse interiormente como "Estoy bien escrito, estoy bien escrito, estoy bien escrito, etcétera", y eso es todo.  Y uno querría otra cosa, ¿no?...  Una buena literatura es buena en relación con las normas establecidas.  Si la función de la literatura es inventar normas nuevas, no podemos limitarnos a seguir obedeciéndolas (174).

[What's good about bad literature is that it operates with a wonderful freedom, the freedom of folly, of madness, and at times good literature is bad because in order to be good it has to be fussed over to such an extent, to be reined in so much, that it ends up being bad.  It ends up being boring or, more to the point, it isn't worth bothering to read.  Some of Marguerite Yourcenar's books, of Octavio Paz's or Milan Kundera's, which are presumed to be good literature, could be translated internally as "I'm well written, I'm well written, I'm well written, etc." and that's it.  And one would want something different than that, no?...  A good literature is good in relationship to the established norms.  But if the function of literature is to concoct new norms, we can't limit ourselves to continue abiding by them.]

"I'm well written, I'm well written, I'm well written, etc."  Classic bookish smack talk!

Whatever one makes of Aira's dismissal of conventionally "good" literature (I, for one, like to imagine that he could just as easily have been throwing under the bus those book bloggers who get all weak in the knees whenever they drone on about that nonexistent genre known as "literary fiction"), his admirer and fellow novelist Pitol returns to the autobiographical/memoir tip to speak of the Argentine in the most glowing of terms.  The novel that made him an Aira convert?  I'll let the essayist tell the story:

Para continuar con la coexistencia en aquel encuentro de escritores en Mérida y el trato con Aira, puedo decir que fue sólo el último día cuando hablamos de literatura, de lo que leíamos y lo que cada quien estaba buscando en la escritura.  Al despedirnos me regaló su última novela: Cómo me hice monja.  Ese día marca un hito en mi vida de lector: existe un antes y un después de la lectura de esa extraordinaria novelita.  La leí en la noche.  Al día siguiente, en Caracas, no pude sino hablar de ese libro, y poco después, al regresar en el avión a México, volví a releerlo.  Desde hacía muchos años no había sentido el asombro y placer que me produjo recorrer una y otra vez sus páginas, donde la transgresión era continua, como lo era también la permanente transmutación de toda norma de tiempo y espacio (175).

[To continue on with that writers' encounter in Mérida and my relations with Aira, I can say that it was only on the last day when we spoke of literature, of what we were reading and what each of us was looking for in writing.  Upon saying goodbye to each other, he gave me a gift of his latest novel: How I Became a Nun.  That day marks a milestone in my life as a reader: there exists a before and an after in regard to the reading of that extraordinary little novel.  I read it at night.  The next day, in Caracas, I couldn't do anything else but talk about that book, and shortly afterward, on the plane back to Mexico, I went back and reread it.  It had been many years since I felt the astonishment and pleasure produced in me by thumbing through its pages again and again, where the transgression was ongoing as was the permament transmutation of all norms of time and space.]

One of the reasons I wanted to share this piece with you today, friends and lurkers, is that in his typically exuberant fashion, drunk on literature as he so often is in his nonfiction writing, Pitol uses this confession as a prelude to an Acapulco cliff diving-like leap into the waters of readerly delirium.  He claims that the adolescent reader lives and dies with the happiness produced by the reading of works that produce just such delirium--in his case Mann's Doctor Faustus; Dickens' Great Expectations; Schwob's The Children's Crusade; Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom; Borges' The Aleph; the Quixote "of course," and a host of unnamed authors.  Although Pitol admits that this adolescent delirium tends to lessen in frequency over the years, it never really disappears, a pretext which leads Pitol to cite another number of the books he read later in life which took him back to this readerly paradise of his youth.  Among the titles? "Casi todas las novelas cortas y algunos cuentos de Chejov" ["Almost all the short novels and some short stories by Chekhov"]; The Brothers Karamozov, "que fue en mí una lectura tardía" ["which was a late encounter for me"]; Tolstoy's War and Peace; Gogol's short stories; Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita; Rulfo's The Burning Plain; almost all Galdós; Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers; Kusniewicz's The King of the Two Sicilies; Felisberto Hernández's The Flooded House.  What does this all have to do with Aira and How I Became a Nun?  "La mas tardía revelación fue la obra de Aira" ["Aira's work was the latest revelation"], Pitol tells us (175).

Although the enthusiastic Pitol says many more things about Aira in this reminiscence that I'd love to share, I'm afraid you'll have to take my word on that for now since your humble scribe is about to succumb to a bad case of translator's cramp.  Before I go, though, a few final notes.  Pitol, who would have been about 60 years old when he first met the younger writer, says that he now only has five or six of the earliest Aira titles left to read since "los he leído tan pronto como los he encontrado (que no es nada fácil) y luego los he releído en un orden cronólogico" ["I've read them as soon as I've found them (which is no easy task) and then I've reread them in chronological order"] in search of the method behind Aira's madness (176).  What has Pitol found?  Among other things, this: "trozos de la vida del escritor, de las calles que transita, los cafés donde escribe, el pueblo de su infancia.  En ese continuum se expande la biografía secreta del autor" ["slices of the writer's life, of the streets he travels, the cafés where he writes, the town of his childhood.  The secret biography of the author expands in that continuum"] (Ibid.).  That being said, Pitol does makes a distinction between what he calls "las más altas expresiones" ["the highest expressions"] of Aira's work and the more "tedious"or lesser ones, proposing The Hare, El bautismo, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Un sueño realizado, and Las noches de Flores as the cornerstones of Aira's oeuvre alongside How I Became a Nun (176-177).  What does Aira say in these books as Pitol sees it? "No me interesa, dice, la literatura comercial.  Tuve la suerte siempre de ser un snob.  En lugar de leer lo que leía todo el mundo, leía cosas que no leía nadie.  Leo a los clásicos, a los extravagantes, a los surrealistas, a los locos" ["Commercial literature, he says, doesn't interest me.  I was lucky to always be a snob.  Instead of reading what everybody else was reading, I read things that nobody read.  I read the classics, the outlandish writers, the surrealists, the madmen"] (177).  However, as Pitol adds, there's a big difference between "el escritor excéntrico y el vanguardista" ["the eccentric writer and the avant-garde writer"] just as there's a big difference between the works of Tristan Tzara, Filippo Marinetti and André Breton in comparison to the works of Gogol, Bruno Schulz and César Aira (179).  The crux of the matter?  "César Aira ha declarado su deuda con los vanguardistas, sobre todo los surrealistas; ha estado cerca de ellos.  Ha acometido retos tan peligrosos como los vanguardistas, pero su temperamento, sus gustos, su ars poetica es plenamente distinta.  Es uno de lo pocos autores que seriamente hacen de la escritura una celebración" ["César Aira has expressed his debt to the avant-garde, the surrealists above all.  He's been close to them.  He's undertaken challenges as risky as those of the avant-garde, but his temperament, his tastes, his Ars Poetica are completely different.  He's one of the few authors who seriously turn literature into a celebration"] (180).  I'll drink to that--here's mud in your Aira.

Source
"Lo que dice César Aira" appears on pp. 173-180 of Pitol's La patria del lenguage: Lecturas y escrituras latinoamericanas (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Corregidor, 2013) and has been anthologized in at least one other Pitol collection that I can't remember the name of right now.